God, I hate Philip Glass.
Well, that might be a little too harsh. For an hour I’ve been sitting in a chair listening to Glass’ soundtrack to the film Koyaanisqatsi, swept along by the frantic, synthesized arpeggios (not unlike the soundscape of Stranger Things, but the real, authentic artifact) while trying to figure out what the whole damn thing means. It is an afflicted affinity I have for the work of Philip Glass and other avant-garde composers of the twentieth century. On one hand, composers of this era sometimes seem the least liberated, despite their supposedly experimental, unbound underpinnings. The occasional arrogant disdain they expressed for other art forms of the twentieth century, like John Cage’s arguably racist critiques of improvisatory jazz, indicate a profound dissatisfaction with their own crafted musical medium. On the other hand, however, their artistic aesthetic is magnificent as it challenges contemporary understandings of musical elements like tonal harmony and, especially in the case of the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack, repetition. It sure is thrilling to watch nuclear bombs explode to the sound of thoroughly sequenced minor and dominant chords, almost implying a sense of ironic astonishment over the fact that such power actually exists in the world and that humans actually did harness it.
I don’t know, maybe I love Philip Glass.
Is it really fair to group minimalist composers like Philip Glass with experimental composers like John Cage? Well, it is certainly naive, but I think that it makes sense, at least for the sake of this argument. How did this tradition develop? The most radical musicologist in me wishes to dismiss the experimental traditions of the twentieth century as merely arbitrary responses to the wildly successful bebop movement in jazz. Despite my feelings, it is more complex than that. Following World War II, the Western art community was shellshocked from the utter horror they had just witnessed and grew distrustful of prewar traditions that were ultimately used for oppressive, fascist control. This hesitation resulted in the quick development of experimental music.
The most “extreme” vanguard of this new experimental work, led by composers like Pierre Schaefer and Cage, formed ideas like musique concrete, literally “concrete music,” as they explored seemingly non-musical sound objects as sources where music might occur. These initial forays into musical experimentalism eventually led to the minimalist aesthetic during the 1960s, innovated by composers like Glass. Minimalism might be thought to exist somewhere between the highly abstract nature of purely experimental music and the more familiar realm of western classical music; unlike early works of Cage or Schaefer, minimalist composers use more traditional instrumentation.
Nevertheless, the common thread between all of these post-war traditions is an exploration of nature and natural processes (those entities unaffected by direct human influence) not as inspiration, but for the actual composition of musical works. This served the purpose of withdrawing artificial influences from the music, allowing it to be truly unique even at the point of performance. I find that this reliance on “natural” processes does, however, create a troubling disconnect between the composer’s intentions and the final effects produced by the end work. These artists may grossly understate their own value judgements reflected in what is supposed to be a purely untouched phenomenon.
So what is Koyaanisqatsi? It is a 1982 film directed by Godfrey Reggio with an original score composed by Glass. Essentially an audio-visual poem, Koyaanisqatsi is a cinematic montage of nature and human civilization. The word “koyaanisqatsi” comes from the Hopi language and can be taken to mean “unbalanced life.” Keeping this in mind, it immediately might seem obvious that the juxtaposed shots of nature and footage of modern civilization is meant to be taken as an environmental statement about how we have damaged the planet. Indeed, a number of Hopi prophecies are recited in certain songs of the score, each referencing some type of abstract end day where humanity is finally judged for its actions. Early on in the film, as footage of rippling clouds and pristine oceans yield to mechanical machinery and oil fields, Glass’ score assumes a menacing, villainous tone. Yet, Reggio asserts that his film is not a mere statement about sustainability, and indeed certain aspects of developed, human life are captured in more wondrous tones later on in the film, perhaps suggesting that the flow of modern humanity is indeed a singular, natural process. Is Reggio and Glass’ work simply a call-to-action whose central message is lost to overly pretentious, experimental abstraction? Or does it really navigate the coveted, ambiguous line between the human and the natural that so many experimentalists and minimalists hope to find?
Decide for yourself! Cornell Cinema will be showing Koyaanisqatsi with a live performance by the Philip Glass Ensemble in Bailey Hall on Friday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 PM.
Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].